Photo engraving software

Laser Processing Software

Mike Fruciano is a Market Development Manager for Coherent Inc. Mikes brings 25 years of laser systems, laser processing, and materials experience, and is a frequent writer and speaker on these topics. Contact Mike at 602-616-4971 or at mike.fruciano@coherent.com.

Note: This article appears in The Laser Engraving Report of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

Need to expand the capabilities of your laser processing services? The answer might be to first upgrade your layout software. Do you need to engrave serial numbers, bar codes, or matrix codes? Maybe you need to increase your laser cutting by nesting or vector optimization. Is laser engraving photos a market you would like to get into? The answer is updating your laser processing software to allow for taking on new markets or improving throughput.

Laser Software Basics

Let’s start with understanding the different software components the laser needs to operate. There are two major components to consider. First is the layout software. Typical layout software solutions include CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, CAD programs, and many other page layout programs. These layout programs create the artwork that will be engraved or cut by the laser system.  

The second part of the software solution is the print driver and interface software. These printer driver and interface programs are provided by the laser system manufacturer and control laser features such as power, speed, and resolution. This article will focus on the layout programs and their features and how they will improve productivity and laser processing quality.

Basic Engraving and Cutting Software

Looking for a good, basic software to create simple engraving and cutting projects? There are several to choose from, and CorelDraw almost always ends up on the top of the list. CorelDraw is economical, easy to use, and there are lots of tutorials on how to use this software for laser processing.

Adobe Illustrator is also a great layout program with gobs of features that work well for laser processing. Which is best for laser engraving? My answer to this question is, whatever you feel more comfortable with. If you can create engraving layouts in one program faster than the other, then go for that one.

One major bonus to using CorelDraw is there is a lot of knowledge on how to use it for laser processing on YouTube, in forums, and on the internet in general. Having this knowledge base is helpful when you are in a jam and need to do a more advanced graphic design such as fitting text to the inside of a circle. While learning how to use the Fit Text To Path tool may not be overly difficult for most laser operators, it is the finer points of kerning, spacing, and design that take so much time. Creating and aligning text to objects is not really an advanced design technique, but it is seldom used, and being able to search for a quick answer may be a lifesaver if you are under a time crunch.

There are two suggestions I always make to customers using both CorelDraw and Illustrator. One suggestion is to always have the most current version of the software. During the life of the software version, manufacturers have updates or service packs. Often these service packs fix small or large bugs, and features that previously created wonky results now work perfectly after the installation of a service pack. Keeping your version updated and current is critical and should be done at least every six months to stay current.

Next, make time to learn the software. One simple way to make the time is to just schedule an hour a week to constructively make mistakes using it. Block off and schedule the time to learn how to do tasks like creating laser cutting vectors using the Weld or Combine features. Find ideas on software features to practice by subscribing to a YouTube page, industry forum, or webinars. Need more ideas on software features to learn? Try the Help or Tutorial features that are built into the software. The software has so many features, but just knowing the feature exists is not enough; a laser operator needs to be proficient at using them in real-life situations. Make time to learn the software and the paybacks will come back tenfold in time.

Turbo Charge Draw

One feature many experienced CorelDraw users may not be aware of is that the software can be automated using plug-in or add-on software. Using these plug-ins can really turbo charge it. These additional programs are easily added to your version and they can be very powerful using complex features that work with a single click.

A great example of a simple but useful plug-in for Corel is called Jigsaw Puzzle Creator. This free add-on software will convert any CorelDraw layout into puzzle pieces that are in a format ready for laser cutting. To create the puzzle transformation of the graphic layout, Jigsaw Puzzle Creator uses several different features in CorelDraw and automates their use with a few simple settings. Personalized puzzles fit well into several markets including baby gifts and wedding gifts, and this add-on makes puzzles easy peasy.

While the Jigsaw Puzzle plug-in solves a simple problem for Corel users, more full-featured plug-ins are also available. Smart Designer is ideal for personalized product makers of all types. Gift ware, garments, and signage graphic layouts can all benefit from the capabilities of Smart Designer. Smart Designer comes complete with a full catalog of completed product designs that can be easily customized. Professional-looking special effects like drop shadows, tails, and text wrapping are easily created using an easy-to-follow interface. Packed with features for basic to advanced applications, Smart Designer is a great way to create complex designs faster using an extensive catalog of designs.

Dozens of CorelDraw plug-ins are available and most are free or available at a reasonable cost. A simple Google search for these tools for Corel will show add-ons that help create unique products and speed up art creation for laser projects.

A Step from Basic Software

The marketplace continually demands innovation and efficiency in all that we do. The software and systems we use to produce products also need to support continual innovation and growth. Working smarter is no longer just something to think about; working smarter is a key part to any successful company. So what is the next step up from basic engraving software? There are a few answers to advanced engraving and cutting software.  

Several advanced programs are available that give laser operators the tools they need to grow into new markets and applications. Two recommended programs for advancing from a basic layout program would be EngraveLab and Type3. Both packages feature a lot of training support, but most importantly they are designed for commercial engraving and cutting.

Let’s start by looking at an engraving application that can be difficult to handle with basic layout software. Serialization and bar coding are two important aspects to engraving industrial products with a laser system. Serializing is the process of engraving sequential numbers onto the product. The process starts by inserting a merge code in the area where the engraving is needed. In the case of small parts like dog tags, it would be possible to have a jig that holds 100 parts that each need a sequential number engraved on them. The software has a field to enter the desired beginning and the ending serial numbers. The magic happens when the software generates the number and places it into the correct engraving position for all 100 parts.

Another common function for engraving where an advanced layout program excels is in the creation of control panels and especially creating dial graphics. A dial graphic is a series of small lines that look like lines on a car’s speedometer and represent that the dial has been rotated. Typically these radial lines are positioned every 3 to 5 degrees. Advanced layout software has built-in features to easily produce the lines to be engraved in a variety of degrees, length, and thickness.

Is laser cutting an area you would like to excel in? Take advantage of a feature called nesting that these advanced programs have. Nesting is a powerful feature because it will automatically move and optimally rotate each vector on the layout. Material is optimized for minimal waste using this technique with the software, making sure the vector cutting graphics are as tightly nested next to each other as possible.

These advanced layout programs can perform basic engraving and cutting operations. The features discussed just scratch the surface of the tools that are available for laser shops to expand into new markets and become more efficient.

Photo Engraving Software

Photo engraving with a laser is often considered a difficult task with so many variables that can affect engraving results. Production variables for the photo engraving process include the substrate and its response to the laser energy, the contrast range and resolution of the photo to be engraved, and the brand of the laser system and its resolution range. Special photo engraving software packages do exist and help greatly in the process, often producing sellable engraving results on the first pass.

PhotoGrav software has been on the market the longest and showed us that laser engraving photos was even possible. Other software that is comparable includes Photo Laser Plus and 1-Touch Laser Photo. All of these programs operate as a stand-alone product, meaning they do not require a special layout program to interface to. Each program has a different interface and they are designed with features for novice to expert laser operators. Another key is that these programs will work with any brand of laser system.

The typical process for processing photos for laser engraving requires a few basic steps. Start by opening the photo to be laser engraved in one of the photo engraving software packages. Set the DPI range of your laser system in the software and then adjust the DPI of the photo if required. The software makes this process simple so you do not need to be a laser scientist.

Next, select a substrate from the drop-down list. Each substrate has a specific factor that the software maker takes into account. Materials like alder wood react differently than black granite or anodized aluminum, so these material-specific factors are important in obtaining predictable results.

Cropping, sizing, and special effects such as vignettes are offered by some of the photo engraving software packages and can be done in the software prior to final processing. Most of these features are pretty basic but do add a lot to the final engraved product and simplify the photo preparation process.

The final step in using the photo engraving software package is to click the process button and let the software do its magic. Almost instantly the photo is processed and adjusted for the specific material, its contrast range, the specific laser system, and final engraving size. The processed result is a highly modified, ready-to-engrave version of the original photo. The modified bitmap format of the original photo can now be saved and imported into any layout software.

It is the final engraving results that really show that specialized software for laser processing has its place. Excellent detail in the highlight areas of the faces in the photos are now simple to produce and ultimately make a sellable product. Expanding into laser engraving photos is not difficult when the right tools are used and a simple process is followed.

Software (and Training) Make a Difference

Professional pilots spend hours and hours practicing on new software so they can do their jobs more efficiently and stay current. Laser processing shops need to do the same to keep up on the capabilities of their systems and software required to produce top-quality products that customers are demanding.

My favorite part of presenting a seminar is when an attendee says, “I did not know my software could do that.” There are many features to the software laser shops have that could speed up production or allow entry into new markets. Spending time and resources to expand your laser shop’s capabilities is an important part for both current and future success.

Note: This article appears in The Laser Engraving Report of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!